Earth : Asia : East Asia : Japan : Tohoku
Traditionally a poor rural backwater with a harsh climate, today's Tohoku offers the traveller some of the best scenery in Japan. In winter, the Snow Country (Yukiguni) of the western Japan Sea coast racks up some of the highest snowfall figures in the world, which also means great skiing and lots of hot springs to warm up in. Tohoku also has many castles and samurai residences, making it a good place to take in some history. It also serves as a good backup plan for cherry blossom viewing, since the trees blossom a few weeks later here than they do in Tokyo/Kyoto.
Information in English tends to be sparse in rural Tohoku, since foreign travellers are few in these parts; most people are also apprehensive around foreigners even if you can speak Japanese.
The rural Tohoku accent, known as zūzū-ben for its characteristic feature of turning all "s" sounds into "z", can be difficult to comprehend at times even if you do understand Japanese. Most people are however well versed in school-standard hyōjungo, and English is also somewhat spoken by urban youth.
The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo, Sendai, Morioka and Aomori, with spur lines to Akita and Yamagata. It will take 1 hour 40 minutes from Tokyo to Sendai via the all-reserved Komachi and Hayate service, which run nonstop after departing Omiya in Saitama prefecture. Trains will eventually run through to the new Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hakodate in 2015.
Tohoku is large, mountainous and sparsely populated, and getting around in the boondocks can be time-consuming.
Tohoku's main train artery is the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train line on the east coast, connecting Tokyo to Aomori via Sendai, Fukushima, Morioka and Hachinohe, with spurs to Yamagata and Akita. An extension across the strait to Hakodate in Hokkaido is under construction, but will not open until 2015.
Outside the Shinkansen network, rural train services in Tohoku, known affectionately as donko, are slow and infrequent. It's not unusual to have waits of 2 or even 4 hours between trains, especially for services crossing the sparsely inhabited interior, and buses are often a faster option for intercity travel. The scenery along the twisty mountain routes can be stunning though.
While JR has a near-monopoly for connecting all major towns together, the stretch of ordinary track between Morioka and Aomori now belongs to a private company, and there are bits and pieces of private railways around the larger towns.
JR East Rail Pass
The JR East Rail Pass  lets you travel for free on all JR East lines including the Tohoku Shinkansen and its spurs, and is a good option if you plan to travel extensively by train. There are three durations, 7-day pass (¥28,000), 14-day pass (¥48,800) and a 4-day Flex Pass (¥28,000). The 4-day Flex Pass can be used any four days within a one-month window.
The JR East pass covers the area around and North of Tokyo on Honshu, including Nikko for instance, and can be used on the Shinkansen north-bound from Tokyo. Unlike the Japan Rail Pass, it covers the private Izu-Kyuko Railway from Ito to Shimoda, limited express trains from Tokyo to Nikko and Kinugawa via the JR and Tobu Railway lines, local Tobu Railway trains from Shimo-Imaichi to Nikko and Kinugawa, and the Hokuetsu Railway between Echigo Yuzawa and Naoetsu; however, it cannot be used on the Tokaido Shinkansen to go to Kyoto and Osaka.
If you're not in a hurry, you may also want to consider the cheaper Seishun 18-Kippu.
Especially for traveling west-east, buses are often a faster and sometimes even cheaper alternative to trains. For example, traveling by train from Morioka to Hirosaki takes around 4 hours even if you time your connection right, while a direct, hourly bus covers the same distance in just over 2. Buses usually leave from major train stations, and the largest operator is JR Bus Tohoku .
Tohoku (in particular north of Sendai) is one of the few areas in Japan where you might want to rent a car. Rental car outlets are conveniently located near the train stations in the major cities, as this is the way local business travellers get around. When planning your trips, figure on your average travel speed on the road being around 60km/h. All sight-seeing spots have parking available, which is inexpensive as compared to the cities in the south. Note that in winter, many roads are closed entirely, and even major arteries can be temporarily blocked by heavy snowfall.
For long distance travel, the Tohoku Expressway more or less follows the route of the Shinkansen, but it's a solid 10 hours of driving for the 900 kilometers from Tokyo to Aomori. A good starting point for exploring Tohoku is Morioka, which can be reached by train from Tokyo in 2 1/2 hours on the Hayate or Komachi service.
See & Do
Most visitors come to Tohoku for hiking, nature, history and hot springs, not necessarily in that order. Highlights include the temples of Hiraizumi, the holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan and the secluded hot springs of the Shimokita Peninsula. Heavy snowfall also makes this a top skiing destination in winter, but due to longer access times from the main cities, the resorts tend to be less developed (and less crowded) than those around Nagano.
Originally peasant food for long winters, Tohoku food tends to be strong flavoured and salty, and the area is famous for its pickles. In mountain regions you will certainly have a chance to sample sansai-ryōri (山菜料理), prepared from herbs and plants harvested from the forests and hillsides. Rice from Tohoku is also famous, with Miyagi's sasanishiki (ササニシキ) and Akita's Akita-komachi (秋田小町) being the flagship varieties.
Tohoku is an important fruit production area and produces most of Japan's apples (Aomori), pears (Yamagata), cherries (Yamagata) and peaches (Fukushima). Yonezawa in Yamagata is famed for beef, and beef tongue is a specialty of Sendai. Akita is best known for kiritanpo (きりたんぽ), a hot pot with pounded rice and a chicken stock. Horsemeat is commonly eaten in mountain regions of Iwate.
Unlike the shōchū-swilling south, Tohoku is sake country and manufactures some fine rice wines.